22 November 2016

"La Résistance de Sites" by Alain Spielmann

Monographs published to document the work of specialist bridge architects are few and far between, so I was very interested to pick this one up, which covers the oeuvre of French architect Alain Spielmann. I've featured his work here once before, when I visited the Passerelle du Paillon in Nice.

"La Résistance des Sites" (Presses de Ponts, 208pp, 2013) [amazon.co.uk] opens with an essay (in English and French) in which the architect attempts to document his philosophy of "the resistance of sites". This is a difficult philosophy to summarise, but its essence is pragmatic and rooted in a clear design methodology, most of it related to gaining a thorough understanding of any specific site. For Spielmann, it's clear that views and perspectives are central, both on and off a bridge, so that design is predominantly about how a structure fits within a given visual context, and changes that context.

The bulk of the book depicts and describes 40 of Spielmann's bridges. dividing them into categories such as "blade bridges" (beams), "bow bridges" (arches), "landscape bridges" etc. The text for all these is in French only. His work has been wide ranging, with little preference for material or structural form. The book covers a period from 1984 to 2013, and I think much of Spielmann's work is rooted in the pre-Millennial phase of contemporary bridge architecture. This was a time when, for the most part, architects working on bridge design remained a little diffident in their approach, respectful of the engineer's traditional role as prime conceiver rather than challenging it. Architects often seemed to circulate around the engineering, searching for aspects to refine and enhance, or concepts to insert into the engineering whole which while bold didn't challenge the essentials of construction.

Some of Spielmann's bridges are excellent, such as the Viaduc de la Grande Ravine, the first bridge in the book. With its very shallow strut legs, this 288m long bridge spans heroically across a 170m deep gorge, and as well as being visually striking, it's highly unusual, a strange combination of beam and arch. I also particularly admire the Passerelle des Poètes, a suspension footbridge which is not entirely beautiful but has a certain je ne sais quoi to it, a slightly agricultural charm.

I also admire his several timber bridges, especially the sweet Passerelle de Preuilly in Auxerre. Timber remains so much under-exploited in contemporary bridge design that it's great to see these robustly attractive examples. However, not all of Spielmann's timber designs are a success, with the Pont de Chavanon let down by a central pier which looks very much like an afterthought.

Certain features recur throughout Speilmann's work. One is a taste for a carefully designed stringcourse, using a variety of added fascia elements to ensure the edge of the bridge is precise and consistent. A second is a liking for belvédères, with several bridges adapted either to provide specific viewing balconies, or otherwise centred around the needs of pedestrians as flâneurs. The Pont Pierre Brousse, for example, incorporates a lengthy shelter which turns the footway into an arcade, opening onto a balcony at midspan.

While almost all of Spielmann's bridge designs have a degree of interest, many are, in my view, aesthetic failures. In this group are structures such as the Viaduc de la Bidouze, with its ungainly brick pedestals clasping the bridge pylons, which themselves are compromised by unpleasant projections where the stay cables pass through, and the Passerelle du Pas-du-Lac, a cable-stayed footbridge propped up on one side by an enormous, lumpen steel strut.

Some designs pass well beyond simple impairment into a place from which I can only recoil in horror, including the Passerelle du port de Nanterre, a mess of completely incompatible structural elements, all crushed together so as to be fascinating solely in the manner of a car crash. The Pont sur l'Isère also reaches incredible heights of awfulness, with its portentous gathering together of cables at the tower top, like an angry concrete fisherman.

So I must be clear that this is not a book of magnificent designs, to inspire younger designers and to frequently raise from the coffee table in search of new insights. There certainly are some admirable designs here, but across the board I was left with quite mixed feelings. Many of the bridges are compromises at best, and it's not possible for me to tell where the fault lies - like many a bridge architect of an earlier era, Spielmann may well have been making the best of a bad job when confronted by engineers with their awkward ideas.

The final chapter of this book departs from the rest, showing Spielmann's work as a colourist, picking and choosing the paint schemes for refurbishments of existing bridges. These are mostly both interesting and attractive, and record an aspect of the architect's role that is often forgotten in the chase for expressive new structural form. Looking back through the rest of the book, I note that several of Spielmann's own designs show a sensitive and interesting use of colour.

So, it's still a book that I would recommend, perhaps to be taken with a critical eye and a questioning mind. Which designs work well, and which do not, and most importantly, why? It certainly encouraged me to think again about designs of my own which display elements of unfortunate compromise, and to consider how best to create the conditions for better work to arise in the future.

1 comment:

Bridge Ink said...

Wow! Viaduc de la Grande-Ravine is a gem. I have to confess that I had to go to Google Earth to find Reunion.